Q&A: Fassi on his upbringing, injury and ambitions

After an injury-disrupted end to a tumultuous 2020, Sharks fullback Aphelele Fassi is looking to make up for lost time.

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You were in top form before Super Rugby was suspended, then suffered a serious shoulder injury. How do you reflect on the ups and downs of the year?

It was an interesting year for me, going to New Zealand and Australia, playing top teams over there and feeling so comfortable in the way I could express myself and put my name out there. It really felt good. And when we came back, we played the Jaguares, and that was also a fantastic outcome for us.  But when the virus hit us and rugby had to be suspended it felt like something had been taken away from you and you could do nothing about it, it’s something that you have no control over. Post-lockdown, when I got injured, was another very frustrating time. Not being able to train or play; I was in a dark place, but I’m just so grateful to have the family that I have and a team who were very supportive, taking care of me in all manner of ways, just doing anything that would make me happy and that I was not alone. The injury was very challenging, though, because it’s the first long-term injury that I’ve had. It has really made me very, very hungry to play and to actually achieve things that I never thought I would. I just want to play more and get the game time I need.

Speaking of your family, tell us about your upbringing and introduction to rugby.

I have three sisters and two brothers and mom and dad. When I started playing rugby, it was just backyard sport with my brothers. We played practically every sport from cricket to rugby to soccer. I think I took rugby a bit more seriously than the others but really only at a later stage in my life. I started loving rugby probably at the age of 14 or 15, when I wanted to know a lot more about it. I used to watch a lot of Super Rugby when I was younger and I would try to analyse it, try to put myself in that situation and then think what I would have done. I think that’s when my love for the game started to grow, day after day, probably repeating the same thing, just analysing and then putting myself in those shoes.

The game seems to come naturally to you. Does it?

I wouldn’t say it did immediately, but I do feel that having my brothers around and tossing a ball about at a very young age, you tend to grow up and learn sooner. It helps to have that background when you then go to school. That’s the one thing that really helped me … And in general, I think the biggest influence on me was my dad. He was there at every game that I played, supporting me through my injuries, supporting me through games that I never thought it would be easy – tough games. He was there for me in everything I did.

There are YouTube videos showing you excelling in different positions at Dale College. How do you reflect on that time?

It was fantastic. I really enjoyed my rugby there. The coaching staff encouraged everyone to just enjoy playing rugby because this is school rugby; you shouldn’t put pressure on yourself. They said I should just go out there and play in different positions. I even played at centre. That’s what I really liked about high school rugby, you can explore and try different things. In grade 11 I made my decision that fullback was my first choice, although in matric I was still more than willing to play anywhere the coach wanted me to play. Then, the first year at the Sharks was interesting because I played on the right wing. I’d never played on there before and it was quite a different experience in the sense that there are a lot of things that you’ve got to work on at once. Yet playing different positions has helped me grow as a player, and made me think twice about what the other person in that position is thinking.

What was key to you progressing so quickly into the Sharks senior side.

I honestly never thought that it would happen so quickly. One person who backed me and wanted to see me progress was Dick Muir. He told me that when the opportunity comes, just grab it and give it a go. I always want to improve, and I keep on telling myself that if I really, really want to succeed, then I have to work really hard on my game. I’ve worked on the physical side, and I’ve also worked on my high-ball skills. But the main improvement has been in my ability to understand and to read the game. I’ve come to a realisation that once I have that, I can do whatever I want to do.

Do your mould your game around anyone, do you have any role models?

When I was younger – and you’ll excuse me for this – I used to look up to Israel Dagg. He was one of the guys who played more or less the same way that I want to play; the way he steps, the way he reads the game, the way he communicated. And fortunately enough, I had an opportunity to chat with him, and he had some good things to say about my game and where I could try to improve.

You play in a backline with World Cup winners Makazole Mapimpi, S’bu Nkosi and Lukhanyo Am. How does that inspire you?

It certainly does, they’ve all told me one thing that I always keep within me: when things get tough, you should want to learn more and keep pushing yourself. That opportunity comes once, and if you don’t grab it, you might lose it. The culture at the Sharks, both on and off the field, is truly amazing. I think that’s one thing that has made an impact on how pleasant it is at the Sharks and how we play. Everyone wants to see everyone else succeed and to have a good time helping each other. I think that’s one thing we can be proud of, especially with a young squad like this. It’s something that is coming along well.

And how would you describe the Sharks’ policy towards transformation, and the ‘I See Colour’ campaign?

I think the campaign says that we don’t differentiate between who’s white and who’s black. We’re all the same; we all buy into one thing and we all see each other as equals. As one, basically. When I got involved in that campaign, it was an eye-opener, how we treated each other as one. As I said, that campaign felt like it covered everything that we are trying to build at the Sharks.

What are your goals and ambitions?

The passion to play for the Boks will always be there, but I feel that for me to get there, I need to be consistent in my performances for the club that I’m playing for. That’s the first thing that comes into play for me, and then to keep improving on the small details in terms of my game and my knowledge. My long-term goal is obviously to play for the Springboks, just like any young South African kid. I will always want to represent my country and I will be working hard towards that.

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Craig Lewis